An Eye for IMAX: Christopher Nolan sticks with film for WWII drama 'Dunkirk'

Movies Features

When Dunkirk opens on July 21, it will be screened in 70mm in 125 theaters, the largest such release in twenty-five years. (The last 70mm wide release, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, reached 100 theaters.)

Speaking by telephone, writer and director Christopher Nolan went into additional detail about working with 70mm. He also spoke about the BFI series he curated in London of some of the movies that inspired Dunkirk. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

You used either IMAX or 70mm for Dunkirk?

The entire film is large-format photography. 70 percent of it is 15 perf 65mm IMAX photography. The other 30 percent is 5 perf 65mm, as used by Quentin in Hateful Eight or David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia.

The entire film has been post-produced in the photochemical process, using analog optical reductions and blow-ups. So for the IMAX version, the IMAX film prints, the 5 perf has been optically blown up to 15 perf. And for the 5 perf film prints that we're doing about 125 of, the IMAX footage has been optically reduced to 5 perf 65mm.

So for the first time, we were able to produce a completely analog finish to our film prints.

Why is it so important for you to continue using film when the industry has been pushing to digital?

I think film in general has a quality that is a far better analogy for the way the eye sees than any video format. Even as resolutions increase in video formats, that continues to be the case.

I think part of it is the analog color. The combination of World War II imagery with computer-generated imagery has never worked successfully, in my view. There's something about the patina and the artifice of modern visual effects imagery that sticks out like a sore thumb. I couldn't tell you for certain whether it's to do with the colors or the digitization of the imagery.

I think the exceptionally high resolution of film is another factor. When you're using a very large negative, like IMAX 65mm, the image quality, the resolution are so far beyond any digital format that has ever been invented or is on the horizon.

Also, I think there are certain aspects to film that we have to acknowledge, at this point, are always going to be distinct from video formats.

Ten years ago, twenty years ago, there was a belief that if you increase the number of pixels in a digital format, and eventually it will be just as good as or look like film. But we now have to acknowledge that digital is always going to have its own patina. For filmmakers like David Fincher or George Miller, who embrace that and want films that have that particular feel, that's a fantastic tool for them.

But for those of us who value the way film looks and the way film gives you an excellent reproduction of how we actually see the world, without stylization, I think that film is an essential medium that has to be maintained for future generations.

Film has a more organic feel to me.

I completely agree. And I think the more I live with digital, the more my eye rejects it, the more my eye sees a difference.

I liken it to visual effects. If you look at the visual effects of a nineties film, you remember how impressed you were when you first saw that film. Screen it again now, and the visual effects stick out like a sore thumb. The trick doesn't work any more.

It's what I call developing an eye. Your eye simply develops with technology. When the trick is new, it fools you. Over time, over decades, you start to see the inadequacies of the imitation of film that's resulting.

And as I say, where filmmakers are embracing video for video's sake, and they're liking the freedom that it gives them or the oversaturated look of it or whatever, where they use it as a creative tool, I think that's admirable and needs to be supported.

But it shouldn't be at the expense of film. Film is a wonderful medium, a distinct and unique medium that absolutely has to be maintained.

Does IMAX change the way you shoot?

I think the grand canvas that IMAX gives you, particularly when you see it projected on the larger screens, gives you a different medium, really. It gives you a different way of looking at imagery. And it affects your shooting. The way you block shots, especially. It affects the way you edit the film, too.

It pushes you to what I think for me has been an inspiring kind of disciplined approach of allowing the eye to travel around the frame. That means holding shots a little longer, trying to do things more in one shot, use that great canvas that you have.

But as far as putting you in an environment, showing you the scale of things, the distances involved, the scope and the scale of a story like this, I think it's a really unique medium and a very useful one.

The dogfight scenes reminded me of aerial footage in epics like Wings and Hell's Angels. The sense of people actually flying planes, that freedom and authenticity.

Certainly Wings and Hell's Angels. Battle of Britain. There are various touchstones in the history of aerial photography. I think what we tried to achieve is something with our large format photography that just hasn't been done before in terms of really getting up there and doing this stuff for real and putting an actor in the middle of it.

I couldn't detect special effects in those scenes, or anywhere in Dunkirk for that matter.

Well, if you missed them, they don't exist. That's the way it works in the visual effects game. What you're seeing is overwhelmingly practical effects, real things in-camera.

I was struck by the fact that those pilots in those Spitfires, if they held the triggers down on their guns, they were able to carry about 18 seconds of live fire on one sortie. That's all they had. So they had to be very, very sparing with their shots. They couldn't just strafe randomly, or at will. They had to be very, very strategic in maneuvering their plane to the right position to shoot down the enemy.

So all the shots in the dogfights that you see, they're all things that were photographed in-camera.

But how did you account for different conditions, clouds, weather and wind patterns when shooting these very specific routes and encounters?

We used previsualization quite extensively. We set up this aerial unit, in its most stripped down form, and we carried them the entire way through production. So while we were shooting the scenes on the beach, what we would do is break out our visualization, and we would have the pilots try to pick off different camera mounts, different shots. Go up and test them [and] show us the results, which we'd look at [in] the dailies.

So over the first month or so of the filming, we weren't intensively doing aerial work. We were doing all the other work, but the aerial guys were gaining experience and [were] able show us how the different camera mounts could be made to work and developing their technology as we went. And in that way we sort of started crossing shots off the list, if you like. So by the time we got to our dedicated weeks of intensive aerial work, we already had a number of shots in the bag. We also had a much greater working knowledge of how to achieve subsequent shots. We then were able to abandon the previz and start cutting as we went along.

Because, as you said, each shot, each scenario had to be very carefully adapted to the situation we were in. We also wanted to be spontaneous and be able to try and be up there in the planes, flying around, looking at a particular cloud formation and so forth and think, ‘Okay we could use that for this part of the story.’

We had a great working relationship with all of our pilots at this point, so we could get them to improvise things for us, to work through particular elements of a sequence according to conditions at the time. And really maximize our ability to be creative while we're in the air.

You're curating a series at the BFI of films that inspired Dunkirk. It's an eclectic list, everything from Speed to Alien. I'm especially curious about two of your selections: F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966).

Two pretty different movies. In both cases, the influences are somewhat tangential. For me, the texture of The Battle of Algiers, particularly when seen on a film print as we're doing at the BFI series, sustains as a kind of pinnacle of texture, of tactile reality, of documentary-like sensibility that is not achieved through any kind of obvious visual gimmickry to ape documentary. It's just about rendering reality, the textures of reality, in putting you in a time and place with utter conviction.

Sunrise, for me, is a marvel of simple story, with simple geography and contrasts, and that sort of primal simplicity that the best of the silents brought to storytelling. It's something that I thought could really benefit the story of Dunkirk, which itself I think is very primal and simple. And I wanted to bring that kind of iconic approach to telling this story.

We tried to put out a varied series. When you're working in a particular genre, your influences need to be a bit tangential, they need to be a little bit from somewhere else. Or else you become a little too worried about being imitative, being overly influenced by something that's too specific.

You're including Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. I remember the first time I saw it, how shocked I was at the ending, shocked that Hitchcock took it that far, that he went all the way with it.

It's a stunning narrative development in the film that you don't see coming, and it's achieved with such technical virtuosity that it would absolutely collapse on itself narratively if it weren't so convincing and impressive in its technique.

And I employ a lot of what nowadays are considered old-fashioned techniques. Some that we wanted to avail ourselves of in Dunkirk, so we looked back to the great history of cinema and how it could help us pull it off in a modern sense.

Christopher Nolan Presents the Films That Inspired Dunkirk runs July 12 through July 31.